Honoring the Life and Legacy of Judge Harry Pregerson

“An attorney dubbed him a ‘thug for the Lord.’ His daughter dubbed him ‘the rescue machine.’ To those who loved him, he was a hero. A tough, tenacious, cantankerous, lovable hero. A proud Marine who took to heart both on and off the bench the motto: ‘Leave no one behind.’”

Ninth Circuit Cowboy documentary film

Harry Pregerson knew from a young age he’d be a lawyer. He knew that the purpose of his life was to help people. And help people he did. Although he never envisioned himself becoming a judge, it was through the judiciary that he found a voice he used to fight for those who needed him.

Harry was always the humanitarian: as a boy, when he saw a fish flapping helplessly on the edge of the pier, he threw it right back into the water — much to the chagrin of the fisherman who had just lost his dinner. As a young man, he served as a Marine, fighting with grit and valor for his country despite the ugly anti-Semitism he experienced during training. While working as a federal judge, he was so affected by the sight of homeless citizens sleeping on the steps of the courthouse during a cold winter that he insisted the doors be opened so they could sleep inside, declaring that the people’s building should be open to the people. Eventually, Judge Pregerson would lead the charge to establish two shelters in Los Angeles. That’s who he was. His never-ending search for justice and uniquely conscientious character left an extraordinary legacy and impacted the lives of many.

Harry Pregerson as a U.S. Marine during World War II.
Judge Pregerson served on the Ninth Circuit bench until the day he died.
Harry Pregerson, in his signature cowboy hat, with Judge Richard Tallman.

Judge Pregerson was born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and grew up in Boyle Heights, a culturally diverse neighborhood of East Los Angeles. A fierce Patriot, Pregerson enlisted as a Marine in World War II. He would later be badly wounded at the Battle of Okinawa, but that was only part of the injury he suffered. While in training at Quantico, an officer he knew to hold anti-Semitic views accused him of cheating on the final exam. When Pregerson denied it, he was further accused of lying. He was dishonorably discharged and lost his commission as Lieutenant.

“That was probably the greatest pain Harry ever felt,” his wife, Bernardine “Bern” Pregerson, later said. His commission was eventually reinstated, others having recognized the injustice of the situation. But this was post-Okinawa, and the young Pregerson had to re-learn how to walk to even take the field commission. Through this experience, Bern noted, Harry learned that a person with no power or network, like him, was at the mercy of the powers that be. Thereafter, he was determined to gain that power, and a voice, not for personal gain, but to effect change.

Pregerson’s daughter, Katie Rodan, commented that throughout his life he was a Marine in spirit, and he wouldn’t leave a wounded person on the battlefield, no matter if that wound had been caused by enemy combatants or the structures of a world system that had beaten them down. 

“He simply believed it was his job as a judge and as a patriot to make sure that his decisions upheld the promise written on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”

“If we did not have compassion when we started with Harry, we left with a big dose of it at the end of the clerkship.”

– JUSTICE MARIA STRATTON, law clerk of Judge Pregerson from 1979 – 1981, speaking at his 2017 memorial

Pictured: Judge Pregerson (center) with Justice Stratton (right) and her daughter Elena Sadowsky (left), who also clerked for the judge, from 2014 until his death. They were his first mother-daughter law clerk team.

“Harry’s distinctive quality was that he was always preoccupied with bringing love to those who suffer: the unwanted, the unpopular, the outcast. All those whom society too often treats as invisible.”

“We will not forget his fierce loyalty as a friend, his fidelity to decency and kindness, and his way of being ever the consummate gentle man to everyone. In these times, when headlines teem with examples of indecent behavior from people in power, Harry’s embodiments of celestial grace offer a welcomed counterpoint.”

–PAUL FREESE, remarks at Judge Pregerson’s 2017 memorial

Pregerson attended UCLA on the G.I. Bill for his undergraduate degree. He ran for student body president, despite the anti-Semitic smearing both from the opposition and from the broader culture of the time. Heavy-hearted, he went to the campus rabbi. In the words of Dean Pregerson: “The rabbi said one word – a word that carried Harry through the rest of his life: ‘Fight.’” Pregerson won in a landslide, becoming the first Jewish student body president of UCLA.

A few years later, as he was beginning his law practice, Pregerson developed a routine of taking whatever people could pay – even if it was doing wills for $10, or trading legal services for a package of chicken legs. “It never occurred to him to limit himself to people of position, people of influence,” his wife later commented. 

As a Judge, Pregerson stayed true to the ethos that he’d developed through his experiences, from Boyle Heights to Okinawa and UCLA: an idealist vision of justice that necessitated careful consideration for those most disadvantaged in American society. He fought to keep Santa Monica Bay clean, to provide for the needs of those who would be displaced by freeway construction, for fair and humane criminal punishment, and for the families of immigrants. Read more about his legal career at the link below: “Pregerson: The Jurist.”

Judge Pregerson is well known for his extensive community work, for which he accumulated over 50 awards. It seemed he was speaking at a charity event every night of the week. Brad Pregerson pointed out that it is easy for people who are so dedicated to their work to leave their family behind. “Not Grandpa Harry,” Brad said. Harry’s family knew that they were loved and were the most important people in his life. He instilled strength and independence in his daughter Katie in a manner uncommon for a girl growing up in the sixties. He demanded that his son Dean read the poem “Invictus” instead of the Hardy Boys. Why? “Builds character.” And he supported the family while his wife Bern went back to school to become a microbiologist. Read more about his family and community life below in “Harry: The Person.”

“When I was eight years old, my grandfather gave me a stone with the inscription ‘Never, never, ever, quit.’ Being eight, I didn’t have anything to quit from . . .

Grandpa certainly wasn’t afraid to take bold action, inspiring others to join him, and they did, because they knew he was fighting the good fight, he was a good man, and he would never, never, ever quit.”

– BRADLEY PREGERSON, speaking at the Judge’s 2017 memorial

Bradley Pregerson (pictured at far right) is a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles. He is also the co-founder of the nonprofit GrowGood, which operates an urban farm at the Salvation Army Bell Shelter that provides food, job training and employment opportunities to the homeless.

The Jurist

On the bench, Judge Pregerson was dedicated helping those who had been beaten down by the system, known to serve justice for the “underdog.” He loved that judging gave him the opportunity to help people.

The Person

Off the bench, Harry Pregerson did enough community work that it could have been an entire second job. Beloved and admired by family and community members alike, Harry constantly sought to improve the lives of those most marginalized in his community.

Additional materials about Judge Pregerson’s life and work

Watch the documentary film, Ninth Circuit Cowboy, accessible through Amazon Prime:

Watch a panel about the film featuring Judge Pregerson’s children, Judge Dean Pregerson and Dr. Katie Rodan:

The Judge’s papers are archived at Southwestern Law School.

Contact the archivist, Sara Halpert,
with inquiries: shalpert@swlaw.edu

“Let us pick up where Harry left off. Let us remind ourselves that there is still a city to build, and there are still projects to stop, and there are still people to house, and that those voices that struggle to be heard are the ones that we must amplify and raise up. And if we do that, we will honor the greatest angel that the City of Angels has ever known. God bless Harry Pregerson.”

— ERIC GARCETTI, remarks at Pregerson’s 2017 memorial

And remember, as Harry would have wanted:

Thank you to the supporters who made this tribute page possible!

Paul Friedman, Esq.

Morrison & Foerster Foundation

Blair Levin & Patricia Friedman

Jeffrey Braun, Esq.

Melissa Jones, Esq.

Hon. Maria Stratton

Melissa Grant, Esq.

Hon. Ben Hernandez-Stern